Eclectic Reader: Read like a writer

Book Review: The Island of Lost Maps: a true story of cartographic Crime (by Miles Harvey)

Miles Harvey takes us on a journey where maps and travel, character and obsession, and crime come together and where the “strange borderland between inner life and outer experience, dreams and memory, body and soul” is explored. Map aficionados are bound to love The Island of Maps. Readers who are also writers will want to explore how Harvey reveals the shadowy Gilbert Bland and how it leads Harvey to character insights of himself.

Miles Harvey—who tired of reading other people’s escapades in his role as book-reviewer and columnist for Outside magazine—began to crave an adventure of his own:

Or maybe adventure isn’t quite the word. It was not that I had any particular desire to do something death-defying; what I wanted was a quest, a goal, a riddle to solve, a destination.

Harvey found his quest in crime, in his search to understand Gilbert Bland’s map thefts and, as it turns out, obsession. Along the way, we discover the fascinating world of old maps and cartographic traders. And we discover something of the character of both Bland and Harvey. We also discover the magic that is old maps.

Throughout the centuries people have viewed maps not just as useful navigational tools but as enchanted objects…. Columbus, himself, for instance, seemed to think maps were endowed with a force that transcended mere matters of geography. They stoked his imagination, inspired the flights of fancy that made his great discovery possible. The sixteenth-century chronicler Bartolomé de Las Casas wrote that when Columbus gained access to a map the Florentine scientist Paolo del Pozzo Toscanelli it “set [his] mind ablaze.”

And who among us hasn’t dreamed of maps: maps where dragons hover beyond the known edge of land; treasure maps promising trunks brimming with pearls and gold; maps to hidden, idyllic places (think about Lost Horizon’s Shangri La)? Harvey notes that maps can cast powerful spells on our imagination:

Throughout the centuries people have viewed maps not just as useful navigational tools but as enchanted objects—what [Joseph] Campbell called ‘amulets’ and [Werner]Muensterberger described as ‘power-imbued fetish[es].”

Harvey seeks Bland, the shadowy man of maps, hoping to penetrate his character—to understand why and how he became the most famous of map thieves. He concurs with Campbell, who he quotes:

As Freud has shown, blunders are not the merest chance. They are the result of suppressed desires and conflicts. They are ripples n the surface of life, produced by unsuspected springs. And these may be very deep—as deep as the soul itself. The blunder may amount to the opening of a destiny.

You can see how circuitous Harvey’s journey has become.

Along with Bland, Harvey explores the worlds of mythology and literature. Among the authors in his voluminous research is Aldous Huxley who wrote about what lurks in “‘the antipodes of the mind.’” With this, Harvey

…sensed that I was on a collision course with one of those ‘strange psychological creatures leading an autonomous existence according to the law of their own being.’ It was one discovery, I feared, that would bring no joy at all.

During his search he enters a world he didn’t know existed, a world of persons obsessed. His pursuit of a story about a series of rare-map thefts, and for insight into the character of the thief, eventually twists inward. He comes to the realization that…

We rarely reach our destinations, at least not the ones we set out to find. More often, we arrive one day at a place unfamiliar and unexpected, where all roads suddenly seem to converge and something—the ineffable smell of fate or the stench of defeat or (likeliest of all) sheer exhaustion—tells us the journey is over. In my case it was the knowledge that I had wandered too far. We do not take trips so much as they take us….

Harvey was four years researching and writing The Island of Lost Maps. Along the way, he discovered some truisms about the “strange borderland between inner life and outer experience, dreams and memory, body and soul.” For these, you will want to read the epilogue.

For reading as writers, pay particular attention as to how Miles Harvey’s search to understand Gilbert Bland’s character leads to insight about the author’s own. Besides character, if you are writing about obsession, there’s much to learn by being attentive as to how Harvey layers his story to reveal many facets of this kind of passion.

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Available through your local bookstore or online: The Island of Lost Maps: A True Story of Cartographic Crime

Book Review: The Story of a New Name (by Elena Ferrante, tr. by Ann Goldstein)

The Story of a New Name is a great summer read. It will take you into Italy, a specific Neapolitan neighbourhood and holiday beaches. For those reading as writers, read to see how Elena Ferrante creates place and how she develops character. The Story of a New Name may be a great summer read, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t also a story worth reflecting on “how” the magic happens.

Elena Ferrante creates a time and place that is drenched in tradition: a neighbourhood in 1960s Naples, and two women’s struggles to break the chains of their roles and male machismo.

The Story of a New Name is narrated by Elena Greco who unravels her complicated friendship with Lina/Lila Cerullo throughout the 471 pages of the book (the second in a series). The close bonds the girls shared through childhood are broken when Lina/Lila marries Stefano Carracci. With that ceremony, Lina becomes a wife and all that implies in the traditional 1960s Neapolitan neighbourhood. Lina/Lila, however, doesn’t embrace expectations. Elena remains in school struggling for books and space to study, and to experiment in her own way with blossoming sexuality and unrequited love.

I understood suddenly why I hadn’t had Nino, why Lila had had him. I wasn’t capable of entrusting myself to true feelings. I didn’t know how to be drawn beyond the limits.

Ferrante is a master storyteller. Quickly we’re engrossed in the lives of the neighbourhood, the interpersonal entanglements, local politics, and money. But at its heart, this story is a story of friendship overcoming obstacles—many created by the girls themselves.The girl-women are opposites in many ways: Lina/Lila marries into relative wealth; Elena struggles for schoolbooks and space to study. Their temperaments and morals are also polar opposites. Lina/Lila goes after what she wants, recreates herself; Elena holds back and her transformation comes slowly. But like the yin and yang of self, they are bonded.

…Lila knew how to draw me in. And I was unable to resist: on the one hand I said that’s enough, on the other I was depressed at the idea of not being part of her life, of the means by which she invented it for herself. What was that deception but another of her fantastic moves, which were always full of risks? The two of us together, allied with each other, in the struggle against all.

The Story of a New Name took me in deep into a time and place unknown to me, but one clearly lived by the author who shares her name with the fictional narrator of this story. (For a story of friendship between men, check out What I Loved.

For those reading as writers, think about how Ferrante creates place and character, and how she builds the tension that keeps us turning pages.

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Available through your local bookstore or online: The Story of a New Name

Review: Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang

In this saga, Jung Chang opens the door into the intimate lives of four generations of women. In Wild Swans, she covers the era of warlords and concubines (1920s) through the ideals of communism and life under Mao, to the break-up of the “Gang of Four” (1970s).

How easy it is to fall under the spell of a tyrant. How hard it is to reverse the course of history. For equality between the sexes and classes, the Chinese embraced communism under Mao, but classes of another kind emerged and gains on all early fronts lost. Yet, Wild Swans is story of survival of a family with the resilience to endure history.

“At the age of fifteen my grandmother became the concubine of a warlord general…” so the story begins. The girl had no say in the arrangements made in order for her father to advance his own career. We don’t learn her name; she’s always referred to as “my great-grandmother.” And this is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. She is the first of a quartet of strong women, resilient and independent within the cultural constraints of the various “times.”

Under Mao, China was closed; the Great Wall might just as well have ringed the entire country. Citizens’ travel was forbidden and foreign travellers barred. The brainwashed people closed their minds to everything but Mao’s initial promises, and slowly the terror rained down upon them. Through Chang’s evocative details and harrowing family experiences, we slip into her time and place.

Wild Swans is really two stories: one personal; the other political. In one of the early personal descriptions, Chang writes:

My grandmother was a beauty. She had an oval face, with rosy cheeks and lustrous skin. Her long, shiny black hair was woven into a thick plait reaching down to her waist. She could be demure when the occasion demanded…but underneath her composed exterior she was bursting with suppressed energy.

These women are actors as much as they are acted upon—despite the stifling times in which they lived.

About the political, Chang tells us:

In reality, Mao turned China back to the days of the Middle Kingdom and, with the help of the United States, to isolation from the world. He enabled the Chinese to feel great and superior again, by blinding them to the world outside.…The near total lack of access to information and the systemic feeding of disinformation meant that most Chinese had no way to discriminate between Mao’s successes and his failures, or to identify the relative role of Mao….

The U.S. reference is with respect to its support of the Kuomintang, Mao and communism’s first enemy. Chang’s family embraced communism and the equality it promised, both across class and for women. But they became disillusioned. At the end of Mao’s reign, Chang sums up his impact on China: “…Mao destroyed much of the country’s cultural heritage. He left behind not only a brutalized nation, but also an ugly land with little of its past glory remaining or appreciated.” Wild Swans is a story of survival through desperate struggles, including starvation and unimaginable cruelty. It is also a cautionary tale about the slippery slope leading to loss of morality and the horrendous impact on individual lives.

Readers might also want to look at two other reviews for more about China. In Snow Flower and the Secret Fan readers are taken into a woman’s 19th century world. The Headmaster’s Wager takes us into the expat experience of Chinese in Vietnam during the Vietnam War and glimpses into the life of a son who is sent back to the homeland during Mao’s rule.

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I have the Anchor edition (1993). More recent editions are available. Find Wild Swans at your local bookstore or online: Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China

Unanticipated Borders (Passage to Juneau: A Sea and Its Meanings by Jonathan Raban)

Readers don’t have to be sailors to enjoy this travelogue through the Inside Passage where we sail and cross unanticipated borders. For those “reading as writers” I make two suggestions: First, consider how Raban weaves two distinctly different themes in one story; second: those who are writing historical stories can learn much by noting how Raban draws upon others’ experiences and interpretations and how he weaves these with his own to create a nuanced narrative.

Ostensibly, Passage to Juneau is a sailing memoir that Jonathan Raban makes from Seattle, through Canadian waters, to Juneau Alaska. Readers are taken along on a journey that follows the route of George Vancouver who captained the surveying expedition of 1791-95 for Britain and for whom Vancouver Island and the city on the mainland are named. The Passage challenges. Raban notes that “The Inside Passage to Alaska, with its outer fringes and entailments, is an extraordinarily complicated sea-route, in more ways than one.” It’s a passage he makes alone, leaving his wife and young daughter alone in Seattle. For company, he fills bookshelves on his 35-foot sailboat with history, lore and myth written by anthropologists and sailor-writers. As he prepares to leave land, he candidly writes:

I am afraid of the sea.…I’m not a natural sailor, but a timid, weedy, cerebral type, never more out of my element than when I’m at sea.

Yet for the last fifteen years, every spare day that I could tease from the calendar has been spent afloat, in a state of undiminished fascination with the sea, its movements and meanings. When other people count sheep, or reach for the Halcion bottle, I make imaginary voyages—where the sea is always lightly brushed by a wind of no more than fifteen knots, the visibility always good, and the boat never more than an hour from the nearest safe anchorage.

He sets off, hugging the coast.

This is my second Jonathan Raban travel story. A few years ago I read Arabia Through the Looking Glass and looked forward to Passage to Juneau, anticipating more of the same. Rabin takes a novelists’ approach, creating skilfully drawn characters and keen insight into people and places. He merges historical interpretations and impressions with his own insights and style, but here he’s a little more acerbic than curmudgeon.

Opening this book, I expected a sailing story, and sailing is the focus of the first half of the story, but with “The Rite of Passage” chapter, the story shifts. The mood swings to a far more personal and emotionally intense one, no longer an intellectual or an observer stance. It’s true, we set out with a plan and life intervenes. The story began as one thing and ended as another. It’s also true that in the first chapter, Raban provides a hint about the change to come:

 I had a boat, most of a spring and summer, a cargo of books, and the kind of dream of self-enrichment that spurs everyone who sails north from Seattle. Forget the herring and the salmon: I meant to go fishing for reflections, and come back with a glittering haul. Other people’s reflections, as I thought then. I wasn’t prepared for the catch I eventually made.

Despite this, I wasn’t prepared for what are essentially two distinct stories.

Jonathan Raban’s travel writing is insightful and his use of language a pleasure to read earning him many plaudits. But in someone with lesser skills, I doubt the starkness of the contrast between the themes would have worked.

For those who are “reading as writers,” Raban’s story provides a cautionary tale. Although both halves are memoir, and the story begins and ends with sailing, the two themes differ in mood, tone, and focus. The sailing memoir loses coherence; the meaning Rabin finds does not derive from the sea as suggested in the memoir’s subtitle. At times, I felt as if Raban had a contract to write about following Vancouver’s log through the Inside Passage, but then life intervened and gave him passion as opposed to an intellectual pursuit to focus upon.

There is also a lesson from what Raban does very well. Those who are writing historical stories can learn much by noting how Raban draws upon others’ experiences and interpretations and how he weaves these with his own to create a nuanced narrative.

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Available through your local bookstore or online: Passage to Juneau: A Sea and Its Meanings

Mabel Means Loveable (H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald)

If you read for pleasure, enjoy H is for Hawk, a fascinating, award-winning memoir about a falconer who trains a goshawk. If you “Read as a Writer,” keep four questions in mind: 1) how the first paragraph works to set the stage for what follows; 2) how Macdonald enlarges and layers the memoir from a narrow “I” focus, and 3) how she tackles challenging issues, and 4) how she uses hawks and falconry as metaphor.

After Helen Macdonald’s father dies suddenly, she begins a downward spiral. The death of a loved one is something we all face and, although there are recognized stages to the experience, we each find our own way through the labyrinth of loss. Of grief and madness, she writes, “I knew I wasn’t mad mad…[but then] I started dreaming of hawks all the time…raptor, meaning ‘bird of prey.’ From the Latin raptor, meaning ‘robber,’ from rapere, meaning ‘seize.’” The dreams led to an obsession: “I dreamed of the hawk slipping through wet air to somewhere else. I wanted to follow it.” Macdonald turns to a goshawk, a raptor with a reputation for being the most challenging to train—even for the experienced falconer she is.

Macdonald names her hawk Mabel. “Mabel. From amabilis, meaning loveable, or dear. An old, slightly silly name, an unfashionable name.… There’s a superstition among falconers that a hawk’s ability is inversely proportional to the ferocity of its name.” She wants Mabel to be ferocious. Through Mabel, Macdonald becomes goshawk, becomes wild. The goshawk becomes a metaphor, a spiritual guide.

During the training, she turns to all she’s learned from childhood stories, to her experience as a falconer and to falconer friends, as well as to T.H. White’s The Goshawk and The Sword in the Stone.  Of The Goshawk, she says that “White made falconry a metaphysical battle [like] Moby-Dick or The Old Man and the Sea….” Macdonald says of herself and White’s The Sword in the Stone:

“I was turning into a hawk.

I didn’t shrink and grow plumes like the Wart in The Sword in the Stone, who was transformed by Merlyn into a merlin as part of his magical education. I had loved the scene as a child. I had read it over and over again, thrilling at the Wart’s toes turning to talons and scratching on the floor, his primary feathers bursting in soft blue quills from the tips of his fingers. But I was turning into a hawk all the same.

Macdonald weaves White’s biography into her memoir. For more than a few pages, H is for Hawk, seems more White than Macdonald, but always relevant to her state of mind and passage through bereavement.

She also reflects on a 13th century poem called Sir Orfeo, “a retelling of the Greek myth of Orpheus and the underworld by way of traditional Celtic songs about the otherworld, the Land of Faery. In Celtic myth that otherworld is not deep underground; it is just one step aside from our own.” She links this with the…

Ability of hawks to cross borders that humans cannot is a thing far older than Celtic myth, older than Orpheus—for in ancient shamanic traditions right across Eurasia, hawks and falcons were seen as messengers between this world and the next.

Macdonald constantly probes literature and raptor lore, seeking understanding while revealing truths she only half realizes at the time of her “not mad mad” period. For nature lovers, she takes us into fields near the edge of woods in weather that only a diehard falconer would venture. She also debates the moral issue of keeping a hawk whose purpose is death.

We witness the deterioration of her physical and mental life after her father’s death and her escape into wildness. Through memories and Macdonald’s reflections on falconry literature and practice, we come to see how she copes with loss and also how she grows and changes.

If you are a writer, important lessons can be gleaned by reading H is for Hawk. In addition to enjoying a fascinating story…

  1. Look closely at the all-important first paragraph, noticing how Macdonald provides a setting, the first-person narrative, the idea of a journey, and her purpose which is to see goshawks. See how relevant this is to what follows.
  2. Think about how she weaves her story into T.H. White’s biography, and more generally, how she uses literature and lore to enlarge the narrative, lifting it above a potentially maudlin or nostalgic ramble.
  3. Nature writers might want to think about how she handles issues of wild and morality, and
  4. Think about the role metaphor plays throughout the story.

H is for Hawk is a winner of the Samuel Johnson Prize, and it was the COSTA Book of the Year 2014. It’s a good read. Enjoy.

H is for Hawk.jpg

Available through your local bookstore or online: H is for Hawk

Great Advice for New (or Wannabe) Authors

Journal-Pen image LR-1

Here’s some advice too good not to share. M.T. McGuire Authorholic‘s blog “What I know now, that I wish I new then…” is one to share with my workshop attendees and others.

Among her best advice is #1 and the bits about the advantages of creating a flexible plot outline. The advice for the Young Adult (YA) category that McGuire provides is good for all: know your audience, both readers and buyers. I do, however, disagree with her views on grammar and punctuation (refer to 7-steps-to-take-before-submitting-your-writing-to-an-editor).

Most importantly, remember to “Enjoy the process of learning and enjoy writing.”

To read the original: What I know now, that I wish I knew then …

Thanks for visiting and please leave a comment or two.

Of men and ships (The Way of a Ship by Derek Lundy)

For writers, Derek Lundy’s The Way of a Ship offers insight into developing 3 skills: how to develop character, how to write an active narrator in your stories, and how to weave research into your narrative.

Toward the end of the 19th century, Benjamin Lundy, a young adventurer, signed aboard the four-mast merchant ship Beara Head. It is his first crossing of the Atlantic, of rounding South America’s Cape Horn, and of treacherous ventures into the Southern Ocean. Derek Lundy transports us into a world of men, of wind and storms, of waves and ice, of the workings of a square-rigger ship, and more.

Of the men, Lundy says that Benjamin “never admired anyone more than these ragged, tattooed, wild-looking men; he hungered to be like them, and to be accepted by them.” Of wind Lundy writes that in the Southern Ocean there are storms like no other: “Getting a ship round Cape Horn could be the most difficult job a captain would ever do at sea.” For Benjamin,

“He had never seen a seascape like it and could not have imagined it. Benjamin wedged himself into the railings of the windward poop steps and looked out over a sea that writhed and heaved with such monstrous, uncontrollable energy that he was amazed that the barque continued to lie within it. He looked up at wave crests like waterfalls toppling down eighty-foot-high hills, then down into troughs that seemed bottomless, the sea there merely a darker part of the deep hole he teetered above.”

This book could only have been written by a sailor who loves ships and the sea. Derek Lundy’s passion comes through the weaving of words by Melville and Conrad, their insight (and his own) into the meaning the sea holds for us all. His research doesn’t end with reading other authors, or ships’ logs and old accounts of voyages by captains and mates. During its writing, Derek Lundy signed onto a sailing ship and rounded the Horn to gain first-hand experience (although he admits that with today’s technology, his voyage is never ever close to as dangerous as that of his great-great uncle.)

The third narrative woven tightly into The Way of a Ship is the story of ships and shipping during the 18th and 19th centuries. We learn the cargo and parts of merchant sailing ships, the rough men who loaded and redistributed cargo (in this case hot coal) and raised and lowered sails, who cared for every bit of rigging and for the ship itself. We learn about the officer class who commanded (often cruelly) the men, and on this ship, the “hen,” the captain’s wife who sailed with them. We glimpse the era’s industrial, political, and social history, and of barques themselves. We experience love and terror of the sea, and we gain respect for the men who rode upon it during the age of four-mast-barques.

For the writers among us, Lundy provides lessons:

  1. First, we can learn a lot by reading closely to see how he builds characters, Benjamin’s first among them. He is not a two dimensional photograph in a family album; he is a vital youth who becomes a man who knows himself. As you read, think about the development of others (the shanty singer, the mates, the fearsome and the friends, and don’t forget the captain’s wife).
  2. Like The Cave by José Saramago (book review of The Cave), Lundy gives us a narrator who claims a voice in the story (in Lundy’s case, himself). If you’ve tried this, you know how tricky the balancing act can be. Writers who read conscientiously will see how Lundy balances the voice of his great-great-uncle Benjamin with his own contemporary insights and knowledge. And you’ll see how he builds a context of sharing a love for sailing and the sea.
  3. Finally, I’ve never read a better example of an author weaving research—both secondary and primary—into his story. He has made me want to reread Melville and Conrad as well as creating in me respect for other like Captains Cook and Vancouver whose logs he references.

The Way of the Sea: a square-rigger voyage in the last days of sail by Derek Lundy reflects on an era that has passed, but the romance of the sea is alive and well (witness the number of sail-and/or-work-aboard opportunities that exist today on “tall” and other “model” ships). Perhaps because I sailed the Caribbean Sea over four seasons (some foolishly during hurricane months) I fell right into Lundy’s story and experienced the frightening and frustrating doldrums along with squalls far beyond those that riled the water around my sailing sloop and tore its squawking sails. But even if you’re not a sailor, you’ll be drawn into this adventure.

Whether you’re a writer, an armchair reader or an adventure traveller, I’d love to hear what you think of Derek Lundy’s The Way of a Ship.

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Cover image: Alfred A. Knopf 2002 edition

Available through your local bookstore or online: The Way of a Ship